When the good folks of PYM asked me to write an article on innovation as it relates to banquets, I, of course, agreed to step up to the dinner plate. When we discuss innovation with banquets, please know that it’s very different from innovation with a restaurant kitchen. Restaurant kitchens prepare food that’s cooked to order. They cook for a small number of people at a given time. Therefore, what is a great restaurant choice doesn’t always translate for banqueting. The following suggestions will work well in a banqueting environment.
Innovative suggestion No. 1: Begin your planning by asking if anyone on the culinary team has any specialties. I recently was working in Orlando at the Portofino Hotel. I made a workspace for myself back of the house and, one afternoon, the pastry chef came in. Turns out he is a high-end chocolate guy who competes on a national level. Had I known that, I would have created a tasting for our guests that deep-dived into just dark chocolate.
Innovative suggestion No. 2: Use the skills of the culinary team to customize a menu. If the kitchen is diverse, and you have a smaller group, do a meal called “home cookin’.” Have it focus on the items that the culinary staffers do best when they have a large family meal. Your guests will have a good time participating in a meal that is special to those who prepare it.
Innovative suggestion No. 3: Everything has a story. You’ll be surprised by how often people want to know that story. Share with your guests the history of some of the ingredients in a dish or why it was chosen. It engages them in the meal and creates conversations. A few years ago I did the menus for an event in New Mexico. None of the guests had ever been there, so I designed a progressive dinner that had each course tell a story about the history of New Mexico. The amuse-bouche was Spanish tapas, and we ended with modern-day flavors.
Innovative suggestion No. 4: Have a guest chef prepare a meal. Ask the executive chef at your venue about his or her chef friends in the area or contact chefs at the city’s most popular restaurants. You’ll have to pay for the chef’s time, so this will cost some money, but it gets your attendees excited to have someone well-known prepare some specialties, especially if their schedules are so packed that they don’t have any free time.
Innovative suggestion No. 5: If you’re doing a big meeting, add a culinary corner on the event website. It can house information on area restaurants and include local chef bios. Contact a local food critic and hire this person to write a few articles about the area. You also can write teasers about what food is going to be served throughout the conference.
Innovative suggestion No. 6: Church cookbooks. There are no finer recipes in this world than those in a church cookbook. I get recipes — mostly baked goods and desserts — from them all the time and share them with chefs.
Last, I ask that you please keep this in mind: Something that is popular should not be confused with something that is innovative. They are two very different areas. “Popular” has a time frame to it. “Innovative” will have a sense of timelessness.